Treading the difficult terrain of hidden family history, this documentary employs as its surface narrative the experience of the filmmaker’s twin sister as a relinquishing mother, caught in England in 1964 between the permissive image of the swinging sixties and the Dickensian reality of the moral prejudice of the day towards unmarried mothers.
Dispatched, aged 15, to an institution where she was hidden away and arrangements made for the subsequent adoption of her baby, Val then lived for the next 25 years (19 of them in New Zealand) without knowing where her child was or whether she was alive or dead. Eventually however, Val’s determination and the curiosity of her daughter, Karen, brought about their reconciliation from opposite sides of the globe in 1992. Rather than marking the end of the story this was a new beginning, for this event blew the lid off of the tacit family agreement to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’. Thus ensues a tale about the consequences of concealment and ‘good intentions’, a drama of separation, secrecy and reconciliation which resonates with the painful process Australia is now going through in reluctantly facing its past treatment of children, be they orphans, adoptees or ‘the stolen generation’.
The film generates new encounters and provokes fresh revelations as the filmmaker’s family motto of least said, soonest mended is challenged and a new atmosphere of truth is fostered which was unthinkable 30 years ago. . . . As Val tells her story so we meet the protagonists from every side of the ‘adoption triangle’. The ‘grandmother’, the ‘unmarried mother’, the ‘illegitimate daughter’ and the ‘adoptive father’ each give their perspectives. We revisit the sites of Val’s incarceration – of the exclusive boarding school where she lived in an attic and toiled as a kitchen hand; of the Maternity Home in Bournemouth where she had her baby; and of the Adoption Society in London, where the baby was handed over to a couple whose identity Val was not to know for 30 years.We follow Val as she marries and emigrates to Auckland to ‘get away’ but is tormented by the memory of her lost baby.
Learning of a change in the secrecy provisions of adoption law, she takes steps to ensure that should her daughter ever enquire she will discover Val’s whereabouts. In the meanwhile, driven by an obsession with classical piano playing, Val suffers a complete breakdown. Nine years later, evading hindering bureaucrats who nearly stymie the process, Karen travels to Auckland to meet her mother.
Further meetings follow – for example, between Val and Karen’s adoptive father. But others are resisted. Val’s mum prefers to regard Karen as ‘an aquaintance’ rather than a grandaughter. Can family reconciliation be achieved through the making of the film, or will the tenacity of cultural repression passed down through the generations win out after all?